Wednesday, March 25, 2009

On Gay Affluence: Sociological Data Explode Myth

Also in the news this week is a report recently released by the Williams Institute of the University of California School of Law (here). Entitled “Poverty in the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community,” this report by Randy Albelda, M.V. Lee Badgett, Gary Gates, and Alyssa Schneebaum explodes the myth of gay affluence.

Using data from the 2000 census, the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, and the California Health Interview Surveys from 2003-2005, these researchers find that gay and lesbian couples and their families are significantly more likely to be poor than are heterosexual married couple and their families.

Lesbian couples and families headed by lesbian couples, in particular, are much more likely to be poor than heterosexual couples and their families. African Americans in same-sex couples also have poverty rates significantly higher than those of African Americans in heterosexual marriages. Same-sex couples in rural areas have poverty rates twice as high as those for same-sex couples in large metropolitan areas. And children in gay and lesbian couple households have poverty rates twice those of children in households headed by heterosexual married couples.

The report notes that employment discrimination, lack of access to marriage and all the rights and privileges of that institution, and a greater likelihood of being uninsured add to the poverty experienced by LGBT people.

I am not at all surprised by these findings. As I have noted frequently on this blog, stereotypes about rich, white gay men disguise the rich, complex social reality of gay persons on America. Those stereotypes ignore lesbians, who are—and I have noted this, too, on Bilgrimage—far more likely to experience economic struggle than are gay men.

They also ignore the reality of many gay men who are far from affluent and/or who live in areas of the country in which discrimination makes it far more difficult to survive and make one’s way economically than is the case for gay men in major urban centers. We are a diverse community. We are not the monolithic group of privileged white men that some of our critics depict us to be.

As someone living in a long-term committed relationship whose employment life has been constantly disrupted due to discrimination against which we have not had legal protection, I know first-hand the struggle to make ends meet when one is out of work and cannot find a job. I know what it has been like to be paid far less than heterosexual married men for jobs for which I had the same credentials, and at which I worked harder than those colleagues. I know what it is like to be told by a supervisor in a college that I should not expect to make as much as those heterosexual married men, because I am not married.

I also know what it is to be without health insurance. I have been without either a salary or any health insurance for two years now, due to my last experience of discrimination. In Steve’s and my case, the fact that these humiliations and assaults on our human dignity and our ability to carry on economically have come from church-related schools has been deeply painful.

After many years of hard work at those schools, for which we rarely received anywhere near the salary we deserved—the salary offered to our straight married peers, who have never been subject to the scrutiny or discrimination with which we struggled—we now look towards retirement with meager savings that are quickly dwindling, because our current income does not cover all of our expenses, due to my unemployment. And we have assumed a financial commitment we assumed only because our last employer promised is jobs up to retirement, and then broke that promise and fired me.

I do not say this to complain. Our lives could be far worse. There are many who struggle far more than we do. We have many gifts in our lives, and we celebrate those and are grateful for them.

I do say it, though, to emphasize the need for those who have bought into that rich-white-gay-men myth to begin questioning their assumptions. It is important to look at the social reality such a myth covers over, and to stop repeating myths that disguise the pernicious effects of discrimination and legitimate discrimination.

As I have noted in previous postings, I am particularly perturbed when gay and lesbian members of the African-American community buy into this myth and use it as the basis for making invidious comparisons between “rich, white gay men” and African Americans (here). Just as stereotypes about the diverse, rich social reality of African Americans and African-American culture betray and disguise that reality, stereotypes about “all” gay people betray and disguise the strong diversity of gay life and gay human beings.

When African-American lesbians and gays buy into the myth of the rich, white gay man and use that myth to assault the solidarity that all gay people have a reason to build together, they play into the hands of those who oppose both gay rights and the rights of African Americans, even though they may profess to be racially sensitive while it serves their interest to divide two oppressed groups. It is just as unacceptable, and as dangerous, for gay and lesbian people of color to stereotype “all” white gays and lesbians, as it is for gay folks to stereotype all African Americans, or for white folks to stereotype all people of color.

If this study of poverty in households headed by gay couples serves to contextualize and lend sociological substance to discussions of “the” gay experience in America, it will have performed a valuable service. And if it serves to challenge the gay community, both black and white, to move beyond enervating battles based on discriminatory stereotypes, it will have made a valuable contribution to gay solidarity in the U.S.